Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wynnefield Heights 2: Creating Connectivity

A few days ago, I began this series with a critique of Wynnefield Heights' present conditions. The two major issues the neighborhood suffers from are a lack of interconnectivity and a poor built form. So, for this post, I am looking to make the Heights more interconnected. This is done through (a) a full streets and paths plan and (b) a transportation plan. The streets and paths ("connectivity") plan of course governs where new streets and paths need to be built, while the transportation plan governs how mass transit service runs through the Heights.

Connectivity Plan

Building Blocks
Wynnefield Heights, as it currently is, is highly disconnected, broken by arterials into a series of superblocks later split into subdivisions and towers-in-parks. From the five points at the center of Wynnefield Heights, where Monument and Ford Roads and Conshohocken Avenue all meet, no fewer than four of the radiating blocks are superblocks (see Figure A). Two of these are occupied by the mammoth Belmont Filters water plant; one is occupied by a row of towers-in-parks punctuated by a megachurch; and the last, by the Belmont Behavioral Health Center and a large Methodist facility constituting a former orphanage and a major assisted-living center.
Figure A: Current Road Network. Note disconnectedness.
Assisted-living centers, in fact, pockmark the neighborhood: besides the Methodists' Simpson House, there are also the Salvation Army's Ivy Residence, the Jews' B'rith Shalom and the more nondenominational Park Tower and Bala Nursing and Retirement Center, as well as Inglis House just across Belmont Avenue in Belmont Village. These centers have grounds of varying sizes, yet frequently have to be designed around in order to accommodate the goals of densification and urbanization here by the top of Fairmount Park.
Figure B: Road network additions (in red) help cut the superblocks down to size.
Two interventions are needed to remedy this situation: the establishment of new streets to break the walls of the superblocks down (Figure B), and the establishment of new paths to interconnect in a non-automotive capacity, particularly into Fairmount Park (Figure C). Road additions, in particular, are engineered to follow the path of least resistance: they follow alignments that either (a) remain in the public realm, (b) run along property lines, or (c) follow existing access roads (particularly in the towers-in-parks) as much as possible. By contrast, trail network additions are engineered to be more picturesque: they wind around the backs of buildings and connect disconnected fragments of the road network, and also provide pedestrian access to both the City Line and Falls bridges, neither of which currently has anything near adequate connectivity for anybody who doesn't drive, and seeks to convert a deep glen in Fairmount Park next to Neill Drive--according to a 1910 topographical map of the park, Roberts Hollow--into a hiking and picnicking area as well as restore former Fairmount Park drives Midvale and Steinberg Avenues to use.
Figure C: Multi-use trails (in yellow) to be added in and around Wynnefield Heights.
Both networks intermesh to provide a reasonably high level of neighborhood connectivity (Figure D). While certain curvilinear elements remain in this plan, pedestrian access points now come in the hundreds, rather than thousands, of feet; absurd superblocks are chopped down to size; and active park uses are bought to the section of Fairmount Park which cuts deepest into the neighborhood (i.e. Roberts Hollow).
Figure D: Streets and trails intertwine to provide greater interconnectivity.
How to Make It Happen
These extensions necessitate an expansion of the public realm in Wynnefield Heights. While there has only been one traditional way to extend the public realm--acquisition via eminent domain--in Wynnefield Heights, two other opportunities besides present themselves. These two are simply to build where the property is already public and to work out an agreement by which towers-in-parks allow public access on their already-existing streets in return for alternative compensation--such as density bonuses or a tax break. This latter method is employed as the predominant method to break up the Northern Superblock: instead of using eminent domain and transferring all the necessary private drives to the public realm, eminent domain is used only where major modifications need to be made to offer accessibility, while these public-private agreements--sort of like the City leasing rights to the existing private drive--ensure access into the heart of the superblock.

Another issue is the extreme grades from the plateau down to the Schuylkill--a drop of some 200 feet. A bridge is planned for over Roberts Hollow between tentatively-named Country Club Road and Neill Drive; this bridge allows a cutoff for people wishing to access eastern Wynnefield Heights without passing through the five points or dropping all the way down Neill Drive and winding all the way back up Conshohocken Avenue. Getting good trail access around this hollow will be tricky.

Transportation Plan

Figure E: Desire lines and proposed mass transit connections between Wynnefield Heights and the three nearest major universities. A large percentage of the occupants of multifamily housing in this neighborhood come from one of these three institutions.
Current bus transit in Wynnefield Heights is adequate for most purposes. However, it lacks a few key interconnections--particularly to nearby Philadelphia and Temple Universities. (See Figure E.) Furthermore, this lack of a natural Temple connection, coupled with the lack of a strong bypass of Roberts Hollow, forces the 38 bus to go out of its way and traverse a most circular routing of Wynnefield Heights. The long-term transportation strategy is, thus, to run an extension of either the 3 or 39 across the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and through Wynnefield Heights, improving Temple University access; and to reroute the 38 via the new cutoff around Roberts Hollow, described above; additionally, instead of heading to Wissahickon Transfer, the 38 would head up Schoolhouse Avenue past Philadelphia University and terminate instead either at Lyceum in Roxborough, Wayne and Chelten in Germantown, or at the Queen Lane Regional Rail station (see Figure F).
Figure F: First phase of a transit plan. This network uses the 38, 39, 40, and 65 to access every important Heights location.
In the long term, however, consideration must be given to the viability of a light rail line along City Line Avenue; were this to be implemented, the City Line bus patterns would be significantly altered, affecting the Heights tangentially. A bus terminal facility at the corner of Monument and St. Asaph's would replace the overlapping termini loops the 39 and 40 would have in Phase 1. The 40 would either follow Monument straight up, or run along Belmont to Ford, to make this terminus; the 39 would run up Belmont to St. Asaph's and follow that route thence. Light rail would make current 1and 65 service west of City Line and Presidential duplicative, and so the 1 would terminate at this new Cynwyd anchor, and the 65 run through it and along St. Asaph's through Bala Village and then back down towards Wynnefield. (See Figure G.) Commuter buses--currently the 44--would of course, however, continue to follow City Line; they do not have the frequency expectations of the light rail, frequent network, or crosstowns.
Figure G: A longer-term outlook for Wynnefield Heights transit. On this map, the prospective light rail line is labeled "100".

Wynnefield Heights, as it currently is, is a highly disconnected and suburban neighborhood. By improving street and pedestrian interconnections, and by re-examining the bus network, the Heights can be a far more interconnected--and hence urbane--place to live.

Next time I will talk about built form modifications in Wynnefield Heights.

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